Volume 75, Number 48 | April 19 - 25 2006

A Salute To Volunteers

A special Villager supplement

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

Sister Doretta D’Albero of Our Lady of Pompeii School

Teacher leapt into breach to help hurricane victims

By Albert Amateau

In February, Sister Doretta D’Albero, a teacher at Our Lady of Pompeii School in the Village, and two friends drove south on a weeklong volunteer relief mission.

Although it was five months after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ripped through New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Louisiana, the devastation was still evident.

“And the need down there is so real,” Sister Doretta told The Villager last week.

Along the coast between Pascagoula, Miss., and New Orleans, houses and schools that had been washed away were still gone. People were living in trailers, one school was holding classes in an outbuilding that had been used for storage and people still had no jobs or businesses.

A skillful and experienced organizer (she had previously organized major events including a religious convention of 4,000 people in Washington, D.C.), Sister Doretta began her independent relief effort with a few e-mails last fall. Driven by the Internet, the effort developed into a network of volunteers, needy communities and generous donors.

“I can’t begin to tell you about the wonderful people from all over who were able to help and people in those communities who helped each other,” Doretta said. “The best thing we did was to put them together,” she added.

Doretta began the effort by sending e-mails from Our Lady of Pompeii to schools and churches between Mobile, Ala., and New Orleans., some of them connected to her own order, Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She started with a list from the Catholic Archdiocese of Biloxi, Miss., and sent e-mails three at a time. There was no response to the first three and no response to the next two waves of three. But after 10 messages, Doretta received four responses from Pascagoula, Miss., and Mobile, Ala.

“One school needed furniture, one ed books and school supplies and one place just asked for personal hygiene items. One school just wanted money to be able to buy what they needed.” Doretta said.

She organized a funding campaign and collected money from among students and parents of Our Lady of Pompeii. Neighborhood business helped collect money: Suzies’s restaurant, Faico’s Pork, Rocco’s Bakery, Lobster Place and Green Village on Bleecker St., had solicited donations from patrons. Other establishments gave merchandize — CVS on Sixth Ave. came through for the school that needed personal hygiene items. Avignon Pharmacy and Radio Shack also helped. So did Our Lady of Pompei parish families.

“We were able to send about $2,000 in a very short time,” Doretta said. “After a month and a half, a church would tell us they didn’t need what we were sending anymore, but they would tell us about another place that needed what we had. We sent manual can openers and matches to places where the electricity was still not reliable 24/7,” she said.

Sister Doretta had hooked up via e-mail with Terry and Mike, “two guys from Atlanta who had a van and were going around feeding relief workers and whoever else was hungry,” she said.

Through Terry and Mike, Sister Doretta found a man who owned a truck warehouse and transfer station just west of New Orleans. He offered to receive relief items and hold them until a group that needed them could come and pick them up.

By the beginning of February, Doretta and her two friends, one from her home town, New Haven, Conn., and the other from a school just outside Pittsburgh, had shipped 70 boxes of supplies and a week later they sent about 30 boxes to various places in New Orleans.

They began their weeklong personal relief trip on Feb. 18 in a van loaded with all kinds of household goods, tools, toys — “Lots of toys,”’ said Doretta. “Someone put us in touch with a school in Pascagoula, and we went even though they didn’t have a place for us to stay. My philosophy is ‘If I can do it, I’ll do it.’ The van broke down in Kentucky — it was Daytona 500 weekend and no mechanics were working,” she recalled.

The breakdown put them a day behind schedule. But they were able to set up a home base in a parish in Mobile by Mon. Feb. 20.

They traveled from Mobile to New Orleans, stopping off to bring relief and food to places in need. They visited a Vietnamese community in Bayou Le Battre, Miss. In Pascagoula they brought toys for children who had been transferred from their own school, which had been blown away.

“I brought a camera with me and took pictures of the kids. You can’t image how thrilled they were,” she recalled. Doretta and her two friends then pitched in to clean up a school administrative office that had been flooded by the storm surge.

They drove into New Orleans and one of their first sights was houses with holes chopped in the roofs out of which people had climbed to be rescued by helicopters.

“We went to a hotel where a group of Mexican relief workers were living. We had a whole load of T shirts and we gave them to guys who hadn’t been able to wash their shirts in weeks — they wore them until they tattered.”

The three women drove back on Feb. 25. But Sister Doretta is sure the area is still in need. And much of the relief is coming from people who have formed their own network.

“It’s not getting done from the top — from FEMA or even the Red Cross. It’s getting done by the people themselves,” she said.

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